What Evangelicals Can Learn From Rob Bell (and why they hate him)

holmesbellLetter MMy new favorite podcast – along with Mere Fidelity and The Partially Examined Life – is Pete HolmesYou Made It Weird. It’s an absolutely fabulous podcast, where comedian Pete Holmes just sits down and talks with a guest for two or three hours (usually on the topics of comedy, relationships, and God).

A few years ago he had an episode with Rob Bell, and it got me to thinking about what makes Mr. Bell so likable and helpful to so many. There is a message that Bell is sending that many identify with, and it’s a message that the evangelical community – so often the target of his critique – can and should learn from.

Mr. Bell is offering a valid critique of evangelicalism that evangelicals shouldn’t ignore. He is identifying some real problems in some traditional forms of Christianity. There is no shame or compromise in admitting that, because agreeing that the problems are real doesn’t mean evangelicals also have to agree with all of Bell’s solution to those problems.

By and large, evangelicals can learn from Bell’s exploration of the problems, but it’s his solutions to them that make them hate him (and in turn, make them ignore an otherwise valid critique).

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Book Review: Concise Theology – By J.I. Packer

 

Packer Concise Theology.pngletter-c.pngConcise Theology is what might be called a Reformed and evangelical survey of what author J.I. Packer deemed “the permanent essentials of Christianity.” Theology for the purpose of this text is defined as “first the activity of thinking and speaking about God, and second the product of that activity… theology is for doxology and devotion – that is, he praise of God and the practice of godliness.”

Thus, this is a guide covering both how to think and act in relation to God.

As the word ‘concise’ should hint in the title, this is not an in-depth study of any particular doctrine or aspect of theology, but instead offers a brief synopsis of roughly 94 theological terms common to Christianity, ranging from ‘General Revelation’ and ‘Transcendence’ to ‘Providence’, ‘The Fall’, ‘Vocation’, ‘Election’, ‘Sacraments’, ‘Mortality’ and ‘General Resurrection’. These ninety-four sections are divided into four categories, each dealing with a different aspect of God: God as Creator, as Redeemer, as Lord of Grace, and as Lord of Destiny.

In content this book can be comparable to an encyclopedia of terms, though arranged categorically as opposed to alphabetically. The goal is take each idea in turn and give the historic Christian belief relating to that term, providing a concise description along with Biblical proofs for justification of the given interpretation.

In this the text serves its purpose well. It would do well as a survey of Christian beliefs for one curious to know just what it is Christians believe about a wide range of subjects, it would also do well simply as a reference book for one more familiar with the faith but who want a text at hand to relate certain ideas in scripture to.

A last benefit of the text is that it’s written in a very accessible manner. One doesn’t need to be intimately familiar with Christianity to follow the train of thought or understand the terminology, which is why I suggest it as a good intro text for those wishing to delve deeper into Christian theology. With each section being only a few pages long (and the print being of decent size) it shouldn’t overwhelm even the most novice of explorers. In the end it’s a nice relaxing synopsis of Christian doctrine as presented through a wide range of specific terms.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Death is decisive for destiny.”

-“God foreordains the means as well as the end, and our prayer is foreordained as the means whereby he brings his sovereign will to pass.”

-“The truth is that, though we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone”

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms of this text. In the brevity of each section it is difficult to find any particular flaw, the book is only meant to cover the basics.

One thing which might be held against the book is that it claims to present ‘the essentials of Christianity’ and then proceeds to cover everything from the view of angels to the state to the views on each sacrament. One might be able to question whether each of these really constitute an essential aspect of Christianity, without which one would be severely lacking in their knowledge of the faith.

This question I think would be a valid one; for instance, a discussion of whether oaths and vows (which have their own section) are still a legitimate practice may have practical benefits and application, I would hardly call the knowledge of whether a Christian is allowed to swear an oath ‘essential knowledge’. Still, it is helpful to know, so I won’t drag the author down too much – I liked the fact that it was in there, even though I would hardly place it on the same level as say the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation or Original Sin.

Granted, this critique hinges on whether “essentials” is meant to refer to “the essential doctrines of Christianity” or “the essential aspects of each Christian doctrine.” I lean towards the latter, simply because it fits with the way the text reads.

Book Review: Velvet Elvis – By Rob Bell

RobBellVelvetElvis.pngLetter Velvet Elvis is author Rob Bell‘s attempt at bringing Christianity into the modern world. He begins by talking about a painting and noting how if, after this painting had been finished, it would have been a tragedy for the painter to announce that “there was no more need for anyone to paint, because he had just painted the ultimate painting.” He goes on to make the point that we need to be in a constant state of reforming, a constant state of “repainting the Christian faith.” This is because, he says, “the word Christian conjures up all sorts of images that have nothing to do with who Jesus is,” and because while past Christianity might have worked for their parents “or provided meaning when they were growing, but it is no longer relevant. It doesn’t fit. It’s outdated. It doesn’t have anything to say to the world they live in every day. Its not that there isn’t any truth in it… its just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now…” And so Bell begins his journey into asking questions.

Rather than simply showing the people the correct image of Jesus or educating them on the relevance and applicability of traditional Christianity, Bell suggests that we remold it to suite the present time.

I went into reading this book without a clue who Rob Bell was or what the book might be about, though that the line “You rarely defend things you love” (p27) is in the book was a blatant indication that things were not quite right – after-all, what do you defend if not the things you love?

From reading other reviews it seems that the book is often praised for its fresh approach to Christianity. It is liked because he issues the challenge that one needs to keep digging into the Word, that one needs to continue questioning what is presented to you – on these premises alone one can understand how one can enjoy it on a surface level. Bell wants his readers to question doctrine because while there is truth in the Bible, no dogma can be the full truth, nobody has the be-all end-all absolute truth interpretation of the Word and so he challenges his readers to question those dogmas – the problem here is that that’s almost all he does, challenge the reader to ask questions.

A dichotomy is thus created, for though it is important to ask questions and learn for oneself why the doctrines you follow are as they are, it is equally important to actually arrive at doctrines which you can stand behind. Its important to come to conclusions in your beliefs – you question and look into the Word as Bell suggests to see why you believe what you believe, but this is inane unless you actually come to a conclusion (ie, Bell’s process of questioning provides you with the reasons why you will in turn stand behind your doctrine).

Bell attempts to be tolerant to all peoples and in turn denies this aspect of the purpose in his own statements – you don’t question doctrines in order to be tolerant, you question doctrines in order to see why it is that you defend them (ie, why, when it comes to your belief concerning the truth you are intolerant/inflexible in those beliefs).

One cannot only question, one must arrive at conclusions. Doctrine is not in place as a harsh issuer of intolerance and inquisition, its in place to show where previous individuals have gone through the same process and to show the [educated] conclusions they arrived at – they’re there to give you an informed outline to follow (thus why texts such as The Westminster Standards offers in-text citation of scripture, so you’ll know why they concluded what they did). One cannot be wholly tolerant, as G.K. Chesterton notes “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions” (for elaboration, check out his book Orthodoxy). One cannot perpetually question and seek truth, as Mark Twain notes “there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further” (for elaboration, check out What is Man?).

This where Bell fails, he questions but then proceeds to forget the purpose of questioning… he criticizes the idea of standing behind and defending a set of convictions and in doing so fails to realize that the people defending ideas are the ones who used to stand in his place, questioning the dogmas – however unlike Bell this was not just for the sake of questioning them, but for the sake of learning why they should defend them.

Specific Criticisms

Bell’s theology is at its foremost man-centered and denies really any sovereignty or legitimacy on God’s part, mentioning at one point that “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up on his dream for the world” (p157). This makes the fundamental flaw of assuming he ever considered giving up, of assuming he even had a reason to consider giving up. That he’s “refusing to give” up implies that something is not going according to plan, it implies that something is not in his control, essentially denying many of the essential qualities of God (namely his omnipotence and omniscience).

It should be a requirement that anybody wanting to make an argument or prove a point should first be forced to pass a class in basic logic. The entire first half of Bell’s book thrives on false logic, on implementing equivocation (first with ‘faith'(p19) and then with ‘believers'(p20)), creating straw men and taking versus out of context (p42) and with false analogies (ie, that Christianity is like a painting) in order to basically trick the reader into thinking what he’s saying has some validity.

There is little actual meat in Bell’s book. He has few real conclusions apart from that the Christian faith needs to be “repainted”, that doctrine and theology are “servants” (p25) to men and that men need to mold doctrine and theology to suit their current needs – basically, Christ needs to conform to the current world, even to the point of denying the authority of scripture and question the trinity if need-be (p22).

Of course, its only natural that there is little actual substance to the book. After-all, if there was substance to it then Bell might have to defend his ideas, but that would make him too ‘bricky’, as he puts it (even though Paul compares us to bricks (Eph 2:22) being used to build something).

You don’t have to really believe any certain doctrine according to Bell, you just have to be willing to live like Jesus and play on the trampoline – for him the church is the trampoline and the springs are the doctrines. Of course nobody defends a trampoline as Bell would assert, but people will defend their home, they will defend a Temple – and it is a house and a Temple that God calls the church, not a trampoline. We are compared to bricks being used to build a Temple, set on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone (again, Eph 2:22) – the Bible describes the church just as the brickworld that Bell rallies against. Bell would place the Bible upon a chopping block and cut off anything that anybody might disagree with or that might cause argument, that might cause somebody to have to defend their views.

One final note is his statement of “Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (p146) – yet if Christ died for them then they are forgiven and their debt is paid. If they are forgiven and their debt paid then they will not be punished as if they weren’t forgiven or held to the debt as if it weren’t paid, that defeats the whole point. A person cannot say “no, you have not forgiven me”, a person cannot say “no, my debt is not paid”. If you erase a person from a debt to you, even if they don’t accept that you forgave it, you’re not going to make them pay anyway – neither is God. If you forgave a person a trespass against you, even if they don’t accept it, you still forgave them and aren’t going to exact vengeance and justice upon them – neither is God (granted, this is abit of a false analogy in assuming that rejection is even possible). God created everything, God is in control of everything.

I could go on for quite some time giving quotes and rebuttals but I see little point. Suffice to say that it is a sharp departure from any form of orthodox Christianity.

Bell’s error is in his basic premise – Christianity is not comparable to a painting. A painting is meant as a service to its audience, we are meant as servants to God.